Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of crime fiction. Whether it is literature, movies or a television series, I love a tale full of cops, gangsters, gunfights and bloody deaths. I usually admire the writing, the acting, the thematic presentations and, in the case of Breaking Bad, I experience a bit of wish fulfillment. I admit it. Sometimes, it’s fun to root for the bad guys. I wanted Walter White to win his war against Gus Fring. When Michael Corleon sought vengeance during the climax of The Godfather, I silently cheered. After all, those cinema villains are cool, right? Sure!
And then, there’s real life, embodied by the likes of Joaquim Guzman. He’s known to his friends and admirers as, El Chapo.
If you don’t follow current events, you may be wondering who El Chapo is. If you’re a fan of the show, 24, think of Ramon Salazar. If you’re not a fan of 24, think of a Mexican version of The Godfather, or Tony Montana, or Heisenberg. If you don’t get any of those references, I can’t do anything for ya.
El Chapo is one of the biggest drug lords in the world, possibly of all time. His exact age is unknown, though he’s estimated to be around 60. He’s wed at least four spouses and sired at least 11 children. As the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, he is one of the biggest dealers of cocaine, meth, heroin and pot in Mexico, North America and Europe. He has been arrested three times and has escaped from prison twice. He has committed scores of murders and ordered hundreds more.
El Chapo (which is Mexican slang for Shorty), has the kind of biography that makes him legendary in certain quarters. It’s also the kind of story that only a Hollywood directorial legend such as Martin Scorsese could love. Maybe that’s what Hollywood actor/activist Sean Penn was thinking when he arranged to interview El Chapo on behalf of Rolling Stone Magazine. Penn conducted the interview in secret after El Chapo had escaped from a prison in Mexico for the second time. To characterize the interview as a puff piece would be generous. It was little better than a love fest, with Penn excusing much of El Chapo’s criminal behavior due to his impoverished upbringing; a claim that is dubious at best.
It is not my intention to excoriate the virtues of El Chapo. He doesn’t have any. Nor will I waste energy in the condemnation of Sean Penn. His actions are perfectly predictable. As an extreme leftist, Penn never met a despot or thug whom he didn’t love. He has openly championed the likes of Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, while characterizing George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice as, “Villainously and criminally obscene people.” His work with Rolling Stone is not his first foray into the world of advocate journalism. He has written articles for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He is the quintessential example of a celebrity with no real journalistic credibility who uses his fame to bolster himself as an authority on politics.
The larger question to be considered is this. How did we get to a place in our society where Sean Penn could write such a biased article about El Chapo And have it taken seriously by the public and the mainstream media?
It’s not just that El Chapo is considered to be a sort of countercultural celebrity in many circles. We’ve had our share of criminals throughout history who have been romanticized and mythologized. Think of Jesse James, Al Capone and John Gotti. Nor is it the blatantly biased “journalism” that seems to have become more popular today. I truly believe that something deeper is happening.
It is my firm belief that complex problems always have complex origins. Many would point their fingers at one scapegoat for the blurring of the lines between fact and opinion in today’s world. The left would blame Rush Limbaugh and Fox News for the problem. The right blames a biased mainstream media who openly champions one political philosophy over others. This is a simplistic view. In my opinion, various trends and events have formed a kind of nexus that culminated in the meeting of Mr. Guzman and Mr. Penn, forever to be crystallized in print.
One aspect concerns the blurring of the line that separates hard news pages from the editorial pages. We’ve always had yellow journalism in our country. William Randolph Hearst exemplified it in the early 20th century. Though he was a media magnate, many of his contemporaries shunned Hearst and condemned his work for the sensationalistic tripe that it was. In the 20th century, many hard news reporters seemed to be able to maintain a reasonable level of objectivity, even when the truth of a story was evident. Legendary investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame are the best examples. Walter Cronkite was biased against the Vietnam War, but did a respectable job of keeping his opinions neutral until the tide of public sentiment turned against the war.
The face of journalism began to slowly shift over time. The Watergate scandal and the election of Ronald Reagan as president brought out a new breed of journalists who were more open in their criticisms. That was followed by the birth of the cable news phenomenon, with CNN blazing a trail toward 24/7 news coverage. In the ‘90’s, Republicans who rightly felt that they weren’t getting a fair shake in the media rejoiced at the creation of Fox News, a network billed as the alternative to CNN. The left shook it’s collective head and waited for the demise of Fox News, but throughout the late ‘90’s and the first decade of the following millennium, it became the ratings king in the world of cable news. Seeing their success, the left tried to do Fox News one better by creating MSNBC, a channel even more left of the mainstream CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN.
The first time that I really sat up and took notice of blatant mainstream advocate journalism occurred during the presidential election of 2004. Does anyone remember, Memogate?
Dan Rather and his 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes aired a story claiming that they had obtained memos that proved that George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard in 1972 and 1973 was less than honorable. They further claimed that members of the Guard scrubbed the documents to cover up Bush’s failure to meet all of his service obligations.
Within minutes of the airing of the story, the conservative blogosphere went crazy. Soon, it had become apparent that the documents were forgeries and had been provided by a source who was a well-known anti-Bush partisan. After a two-week investigation fueled by mounting pressure from the mainstream press, CBS retracted the story and apologized for airing it. Mary Mapes was subsequently fired and Dan Rather relinquished the anchor’s chair of the CBS Evening News and quietly faded from the public eye. He later sued CBS, but the lawsuit was dismissed in 2009.
The money shot of this story came from Mary Mapes a year after the controversy hit. In an interview with ABC’s Brian Ross, he asked her if she thought the responsibility shouldn’t rest with the reporter to prove the authenticity of the documents before going to air. She replied, “I don’t think that’s the standard.” Her notion echoes Mark Twain who said, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Twain’s remark was delivered with sardonic irony, but Mary Mapes takes it literally.
11 years after the debacle, the movie, “Truth: hit theaters, with Robert Redford starring as Dan Rather and Kate Blanchett as Mapes. The movie painted Rather and Mapes as sympathetic heroes who were chasing a true story, while CBS was depicted as the villain who was covering up for their corporate owners. CBS condemned the movie as, “rewriting history,” and few people went to see it, but that didn’t stop dozens of journalists from fawning over the real Rather and Mapes in a pre-screening press conference.
Along with the rise of the 24/7 news cycle came the rise of the internet, where anyone who operates a blog or chat forum (formerly known as a bulletin board), could call him or herself a journalist. The black-and-white print of newspapers started to become obsolete in favor of instantaneous electronic transmissions that could be posted in mere seconds. In order to keep up with the instant gratification of readers, all of the major newspapers began to shift to digital content in hopes of keeping their corporate owners in the black, all the while competing with original websites such as Slate.com and The Daily Caller.
Sidebar: The irony isn’t lost on me that it was a bunch of bloggers who forced Memogate into the public eye, while the mainstream media chose to ignore it until it became the 500-pound elephant in the room. These people are admittedly partisan. It’s sad that not one hard-news journalist ran with the ball before it became popular to do so.
Finally, celebrity culture has taken a major upswing in the 21st century. Social media plays a pivotal role. Most people have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or Snapchat account. Within mere seconds, you can show that cute photo of your kid making a mashed potato sculpture to all of your friends and family. If he’s cute enough, you will go viral, getting thousands of hits on Youtube. Suddenly, you’re a “journalist” who might just get to interview Barack Obama, or pose a planted question at a presidential debate.
Combine this with the sad trend of so-called, “Reality television.” It started innocently enough in the late ‘90’s with soft fare like Cops and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but with the dawn of the millennium, we amped it up from American Idol and The Amazing Race to Survivor, Fear Factor, The Apprentice, Real World and Duck Dynasty. These shows may have different styles, but the common thread involves supposedly ordinary people being plucked from obscurity and slowly emerging into the spotlight of fame, all while the cameras roll.
And then, there’s Rolling Stone.
Rolling Stone was never intended to be a hard news publication on par with USA Today, but they try to remain an avant-garde force with the younger generation. To that end, they love to mix socio/politics with their pop culture. They’ve never been known for their journalistic integrity or impartiality. Remember the August, 2013 cover that featured a flattering photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (aka, The Boston Marathon Bomber)? The issue was banned by many stores, including Wal-Mart, over the cover. But they hit a new low the following year when they published a now-infamous story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. The story was proven to be fabricated and Rolling Stone was forced to issue a retraction. The author, Sabrina Erdely, is clearly a fan of Mary Mapes’ style of “journalism.” It’s also noteworthy that Erdely is still employed at Rolling Stone. At least CBS had the decency to fire Mapes.
No, it’s not a bit surprising that Rolling Stone would collaborate with Sean Penn to concoct a piece glorifying a murderous drug lord like El Chapo. It’s not even surprising that the media’s reaction to the interview was so tepid. It’s not even surprising that Rolling Stone agreed to give El Chapo preapproval for the article before it ran. Founder Jann Wenner’s’s quote sums up the situation from Rolling Stone’s perspective: “We have let people in the past approve their quotes for interviews.” How many of those people are drug lords who kill reporters who write unflattering articles about them and popularized the beheading of their enemies as a means of warfare?
The nice thing about fictional characters like Tony Soprano is that, once you turn off your television, they flicker out of existence. They are born from the imaginations of a group of people sitting around a conference table in a writers’ room somewhere. Sean Penn thrives in a world of fiction, both in his personal and professional life. El Chapo’s victims live and die in a stark reality. Those who are no longer here to speak for themselves passed with a death scream upon their lips. Those who are left behind live as slaves to addiction with poison in their blood. As fiction and reality become more blurred in our modern age of the information super highway, that cold, brutal fact never changes.